And keeps 800 milers
productive and profitable.
MINERAL POINT, Wis.–If you picture
the biggest dairy herd in Wisconsin chowing down corn silage and
concentrate on a concrete lot, guess again. Charles Opitz–whose
herd perennially ranks among the largest two or three in the state–doesn't
grow corn. Seven to eight months of the year, intensively grazed
pastures supply the bulk of the feed for his 600 to 800 milkers
and 1,200 dry stock and heifers.
dry cattle make good use of lower-quality forages on the Opitz
farm. They also are used to clean up hay fields after baling
and to chew premium pastures down to the levels needed for optimum
In `89, Opitz's farm produced nearly
$800 worth of milk per acre. Some of his better pastures returned
up to $1 ,300 per acre to management and labor, after deducting
costs for seed, fertilizer and purchased feed.
"The labor isn't any higher with this kind of a system, either,"
says Opitz, who has nine full-time employees. .'You're just substituting
one kind of labor for another. You're not spending all your time
sitting on $200,000 worth of equipment burning 150 gallons.of
diesel fuel a week plowing, hauling manure or making hay and silage.
It's a lot cheaper to run a four-wheel ATV to check pastures than
it is to run a four- wheel-drive tractor.
"It's more enjoyable management,
too," he continues. "I don't like running equipment.
And with grass farming. I don't have to. "
Dairy Of The Future
Opitz–who produces 12 million to 13 million pounds of
milk annually–is living proof that intensive rotational grazing
isn't just for small herds. In fact, it's a profitable alternative
for most any size dairy. "Managing 40 or 50 cows on a drylot
just isn't very cost- effective," he observes. "You
can start by taking 40 acres and graze it. If it's already pasture,
you'll get a 40-percent increase in forage production just by
dividing it into paddocks and managing it well. If you convert
cropland to pasture, then you won't be as rushed to raise so many
crops. And right off the bat, you won't need much other feed for
at least four to six months out of the year.
fits many pieces together to manage his 800 milking cattle on
2,100 acres, but cropping corn isn't one of them. To keep milk
flowing at 12 milllion to 13 million gallons per year, all of
the farm's green hills are either grazed, or chopped or baled.
"The future of dairying in the
Upper Midwest is in grass farming: he opines. "It's the only
way new farmers can get into it. If we don't, we'll lose our dairy
farms and then our cheese industry to the South." Opitz is
spreading the grass-farming gospel through field days and demonstrations
with the help of a grant S from the Wisconsin Department of Agriculture,
Trade and Consumer Protection's.Sustainable Agriculture Program.
But more fun and profit aren't the only advantages of pasture-based
dairying. Local SCS officials estimate Opitz's land was losing
as much as 90 tons of soil per acre before he moved there and
took the fragile slopes out of corn a decade ago. "Grass
farming solves 99 percent of the problems LISA (low-input sustainable
agriculture) is trying to deal with. It not only stops erosion
and silting, but it also eliminates 99 percent of the herbicides
and insecticides," he says. " And now this farm supports
10 families. Before, it had a hard time supporting two."
The first thing Opitz did when he took over the land was seed
most of it to alfalfa and brome. At that time, he only grazed
dry cows and heifers, and still made about 3,000 acres of hay
each year. "Before we moved here, we realized we wanted a
place where we could pasture dry cows and heifers six to eight
months a year," he recalls. "The reason for that was
the drought of `76. We took feed out of storage all summer long.
Meanwhile, there was hay in the field that was too short to cut.
But it could have been grazed, except it was scattered allover
and there were no fences or water. Handling all the manure and
feed was getting expensive, too."
The decision to start grazing the milkers came in '87. "We
were running into heat-stress problems in the confinement barn.
So we put 80 milkers out on rotated pasture. During one hot spell,
production from the cows in the barn dropped 22 percent. The cows
outside fell only 12 percent. After subtracting supplemental feed
costs, those 80 cows made $900 worth of milk per acre in six months
Now, all the milkers are in the pasture rotation, and Opitz only
cuts about ( 1,200 acres of hay. He estimates it costs him from
$40 to $70 per acre to install fencing and water. "That's
a bargain, when you figure it costs about $20 a trip to cut silage
or $100 per acre to make hay each year. You can pay for land just
with the savings in operating costs."
During the grazing season, Opitz's milkers get about half
their feed from pasture, while half is fed in the barn. The milker
ration typically consists of 6 to 7 pounds of alfalfa hay, 1 to
2 pounds of sudax or small grain silage and 12 pounds of purchased
grain– varying combinations of wheat middlings, hominy, wet
gluten, distiller's grain and full-fat soybeans. In winter, the
grain is increased to 24 to 27 pounds. The ration is fed free-choice
in the barn and limited by the time they're in there," explains
Opitz. "If they could get all the pasture they wanted, I
wouldn't need to supplement as much. The trouble is, I just don't
have enough pasture."
Opitz's rolling herd average is about 14,000 to 15,000 pounds.
"It was 17,000 when I milked three times a day and fed them
all in the barn," he recalls. "But it's nearly impossible
to milk three times a day with a large herd on pasture, because
the cows spend too much time walking. In New Zealand, they say
cows can walk up to a mile for grass. But here, it's too hot for
Feed and other cost savings more than made up for the drop in
production. "Now that I'm only milking twice a day, I only
need to hire six or seven milkers. I used to have a dozen,"
Milkers are divided into high- and low-producing herds and are
rotated to new grass every day or two. Rest periods range from
three to four weeks in spring, five to seven weeks in summer and
four to five weeks in fall. "When it's wet and there's good
growth, you have to speed up the rotation. When it's dry, you
need to slow down to get good regrowth," explains Opitz.
Dry cows and heifers follow milkers in the rotation. "It's
impossible to manage a pasture system without dry stock to use
the lower-quality forage and keep the pastures grazed close,"
he explains, Heifers are also used to clean up fields that have
recently been cut for hay. "That can give you the extra day
or so you need to stretch out the rest periods when pastures hit
the midsummer slump," explains Opitz.
Early spring management is critical. "You can really mess
up a pasture system if you don't graze early enough or hard enough,"
says Opitz, who starts grazing when new grass is only about 2
inches tall. "Starting that first pass early is essential
so you get staggered regrowth later on," he stresses. "It
sets the stage for the whole season. If you don't start early
enough, the grass will get away from you. " Opitz starts
grazing the regrowth when it's about 6 inches tall.
Heifers usually begin grazing in late March. In' 89, they did
not come off pasture until Dec. 21. They seldom receive additional
feed. Milkers and dry cows usually start grazing two or three
weeks later, and come off pasture two or three weeks sooner.
Opitz's spring strategy actually starts the previous fall, when
he stops grazing about two-thirds of his pastures in early September.
He'll graze half of that deferred pasture in late fall, and the
other half in early spring. "Those pastures will be the first
to green up in spring," , he says. " And on high-fertility
soils, the old grass left from fall growth usually tests 14- to
||Opitz is trying
to reduce harvesting, but it's still the best option when his
cows can't keep up with lush June growth of alfalfa; brome and
"Deferring grass in the fall
is like applying 60 to 80 pounds of N in the spring," continues
Opitz. That's because fall growth is concentrated on building
root systems, so there's more root-soil contact next spring, he
Similarly, Opitz will defer some pastures from the spring flush
to graze during the summer slump. "I can grow the grass in
June and graze it the end of the July," he says. "It
smooths out the slump and I have less hay to make. "
To break up manure and dead grass mulch, Opitz drags pastures
as needed with a Fuerst harrow. "Spreading grasses need to
have that mulch cleared away. Otherwise, they think there's grass
growing next to them and they won't spread," he observes.
"The harrow is effective on thistles, too. It pops them right
out of the ground."
But Opitz seldom clips pastures. "If you need to clip weeds,
it's a sign you've mismanaged," he says." I used to
have to mow a lot. Now it's usually only when I've lost all the
grass because of heat or drought. But if the pasture gets too
far ahead, you still need to clip it or make hay."
5 Grazings A Year
In response to his grazing management, Optiz's pastures are
now mostly quackgrass and brome, with fescue, orchardgrass and
bluegrass on poorer soils. Legumes include alfalfa on better soils,
and red clover and birdsfoot trefoil on poorer ground. "There
is no optimum grass or legume for the whole farm. You want a combination
to cover up the shortfalls of each," he stresses. "Low-fertility
fields require different species and different management. They're
less forgiving, but they can still be very profitable." For
a clue as to what the best pasture species might be, check to
see what grows well in adjacent roadside ditches, suggests Opitz.
Brome is his grass-of-choice on better soils. "The more I
work with brome, the more I like it," he says. "You
can get up to 21 percent protein, five grazings a season and carry
close to two animal units per acre. But it needs more management.
You have to get it some nitrogen, either with manure, commercial
fertilizer or by growing legumes with it. " Opitz also swears
by quackgrass. Like brome, he can graze it five times a season
on high-fertility soils and it often tests more than 30 percent
On poorer soils, Opitz tries to manage pastures to establish a
cycle where legumes dominate for two or three years, followed
by grasses that feed off the residual legume-N for two or three
years. To aid that strategy, he'll purposely allow legumes to
go to seed every few years, so that he has a large reservoir of
seed in the soil. Most of his pastures grow too fast in spring
to frost- seed legumes. So when new legume seedings are called
for, he broadcasts seed in late summer.
It's next to impossible for Opitz to maintain legumes in heavily
stocked fields near his barns. In addition to the droppings left
by grazing cows, some of these fields also receive liquid manure
pumped from the barns. So legumes aren't needed, because all that
manure keeps yields and protein levels high. Grass-dominated fields
that don't receive manure and are not deferred in the fall usually
receive 60 to 80 pounds of fertilizer N in spring, and are cut
"I'm not against commercial nitrogen. You just have to use
it logically to get the nutrient cycle started, " says Opitz.
"If nitrogen levels are too low, you get low-protein grass.
You need to start the cycle with something, for instance legumes."
Legume fields receive 100 pounds of 0-14-42 per acre for each
ton of dry matter removed.
Well-managed and fertilized grass doesn't just hold the soil,
it improves it, says Opitz. As proof, he points to three sets
of rotationally grazed pastures that receive about 200 pounds
of N per acre as non-agitated liquid manure. Here are the numbers:
Years in System
Soil Organic Matter
2.5% to 3.5%
3.5% to 4.5%
5% to 6%
"I figure we're building organic
matter levels at about eight-tenths to 1 cent per year, "
he observes. "I don't know where those levels will peak,
but you can bet that organic to pay off by holding water dry."
While Opitz relies extensively on permanent pasture, he still
plants and harvests hay and silage crops on about 10 percent of
his acres. In these fields, he takes a first cutting of alfalfa,
plants sudax, which yields 15 to 20 tons per acre in a single
cutting. Opitz feeds the sudax mostly to dry cows and heifers.
But he also adds sudax silage to milker rations when needed to
increase fiber. He follows sudax with wheat, which can yield 10
to 14 tons per acre, depending on fertility and moisture. Then
he summer-seeds alfalfa or replants sudax and goes back to alfalfa
with an oats nurse crop the following spring.
"Sudax and wheat together have ability to yield 40 tons of
silage per acre. In the upper Midwest, you can't get that kind
of tonnage from any other except possibly corn silage and wheat
or rye. But double cropping corn silage is a lot more expensive
and risky," he says.
But even that small amount of cropping is not Opitz's cup of tea.
"I don't want to do any tillage," he says. "My
goal is to get out of that kind of farming completely. Cultivating
crops has sent many civilizations down the tubes. And a surprising
number of those civilizations were brought down by wandering herdsmen.
Reproduced with permission of the
publisher. The New Farm, Sept/Oct. 1990, p. 10-16.